Life after Death – October 1999

Question: Can you explain the Process view of our ‘life after physical death.’ Are our satisfactions resurrected into God and do they grow into what they could be in God’s aim? Will we be able then to grow into God’s aim?

Publication Month: October 1999

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The question asked this month is more specific than the general topic of life after physical death. It is about the Consequent Nature of God and what it means that we are taken up into this. “Are our satisfactions resurrected into God and do they grow into what they could be in God’s aim? Will we be able then to grow into God’s aim?”

There is no one answer of process theologians to these questions. There are slight differences between Whitehead and Hartshorne, and those who follow them also have different views. Of course, no one knows.

But even if we can only have visions of what may be rather than of what certainly is, these visions are important. To be persuasive they need to be organically related to the rest of what we believe. If they are to function eschatologically, they must at some level satisfy our need to believe that life and history have meaning, that they add up in some way, that what we are and do is not simply lost forever, and that even when it is painful or seemingly vacuous, it makes some positive contribution.

This is the main point of both Whitehead and Hartshorne. Whitehead thinks it is more coherent to suppose that God has physical feelings of the world than that God only mediates pure possibilities to the world. He also thinks this belief makes contact with some very deep religious intuitions. For if God prehends us, there are good reasons to think that God’s Consequent Nature includes us far more fully and richly than even a successor moment of our own experience includes its predecessors.

There are two dimensions to this difference. First, in every prehension of my immediate past experience, some of it is omitted. Whitehead provides good reason to think that in God’s prehension, nothing, or virtually nothing, is omitted. Second, although the immediate past is felt in human experience with considerable immediacy, that is, its subjectivity functions as such, this fades rapidly. My memories of what occurred even a few minutes ago lack that immediacy. In God, there is no fading of immediacy. Each experience in its full subjective value lives on forever.

Students of Whitehead sometimes miss this emphasis on experiential immediacy in the divine life because this is said to be a doctrine of “objective” immortality. This is set over against “subjective” immortality which means that persons would continue to enjoy new experiences after death.

This distinction is real and important, and although process thought does not exclude the possibility of subjective immortality in this sense, that is not what this question is about. The point here is that the data of God’s physical feelings are our subjective experiences. It is these that live on in God in their full immediacy.

The question, however, asks for something more than this, something at which Whitehead hints. As occasions of experience are resurrected in the divine life, are they changed and do they continue to change? Specifically, do they grow into what they could be in God’s aim?

Marjorie Suchocki has gone further than any other process theologian in exploring this possibility. Her book, The End of Evil, is to be highly recommended for its speculative development of Whitehead’s hints in this direction. Her development of Whitehead’s thought is motivated by her passionate conviction that sheer everlasting perpetuation of miserable experiences is no eschatology!

I have not been able to imagine as much transformation within the divine life as does Suchocki. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is some. A creaturely occasion as felt by God is not simply what that occasion was as an act of creaturely feeling. Whereas it felt itself in a very limited context, it is felt by God in a universal context. In that context it has a meaning and role that it did not have for itself. Further, as the Consequent Nature includes more and more events lying in the future of the one in question, the meaning of the original event changes. Since God’s lures have taken account of the original event, the later events, when responsive to those lures, may have built in positive ways upon it. Thus as time goes on the momentary experience in question may become part of the realization of aims of which it was itself unaware, even of aims that did not exist at that time.

The question remains whether this change of role and meaning affects the subjectivity of the occasion. Here my imagination breaks down, and I am disposed to answer negatively. The subjective experience prehended by God remains forever just that experience. An experience here and now may be positively affected by the assurance that God can use it beyond its merits in the larger scheme of things. But just what that use may be lies forever outside the experience.

The added element of assurance that God will do with us more than we can imagine is important. That it probably does not affect the immediacy of our lives in God need not detract from that current value. It can provide the deeper meaning required by eschatological faith.